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On Fighting Culture Wars
Recasting policy preferences as religious freedom
Since I finished the third chapter of my book project last week, it seemed only natural to take the ceremonial step of erasing my white board. Naturally, that required me to put something new on it as I laid out the plan for chapter four.
The concluding section of the chapter will explore how a Fearless Christian University might navigate the varied issues of a pluralistic, post-Christian society and remain true to its mission without getting sucked into a Culture War stance. But before I get there, I have to provide a picture of our current motif.
I’m beginning with the story of Bob Jones University’s fight with the Internal Revenue Service over racial segregation. Randall Ballmer told the story in a Politico nearly a decade ago. He elaborates the history in his 2021 book Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.
This story begins in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1970, Richard Nixon’s IRS issued a ruling that educational institutions that practiced racial segregation would not be eligible for a non-profit tax exemption. A group of African American leaders had sued the IRS in Green v. Connally to require this change, which took effect early that year. In November 1970, the IRS informed Bob Jones University that their practice of barring Black students from enrolling put them in violation and their exemption would be revoked. BJU first tried accepting a handful of students (initially one and then married students eventually allowing Black enrollees but barring interracial dating1). Bob Jones sued the IRS (through the treasury secretary) in 1971. It went to the appeals court in 1973 which supported the IRS. The Supreme Court in 1974 returned the matter to the lower court2. In 1976, the IRS notified BJU that that it was again out of compliance.3 This was eventually adjudicated in Bob Jones University v. United States in 1983. The decision held that religious educational institutions that discriminated could not be considered tax exempt in IRS terms.
It’s historically interesting that this decade-long fight between BJU, the IRS, and the Supreme Court occurred initialy in the Nixon4 and Ford administrations and the final Supreme Court ruling came during Reagan’s administration. The popular history of these cases usually covers how the Carter administration came after religious groups, a useful fiction.
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Randall Ballmer’s chapter on history of these events documents the ways in which this fiction was created by the powerful political forces that helped birth the Religious Right. Paul Weyrich, one of the stalwarts of the modern conservative movement,
cannily sought to shift the justification for their political activism away from a defense of racial segregation and toward a putative defense of religious freedom, all the while ignoring the fact that religious institutions were free to pursue whatever racial policies they chose – so long as they surrendered their tax exemptions. Indeed, the most commonsense reading of the Religious Right is that conservative evangelicals were mobilized in defense of racial segregation. Weyrich’s slight of hand brilliantly shifted perceptions of the movement away from racism toward a more high-minded defense of religious freedom. (p. 51)
Another conservative voice, Grover Norquist,5 blamed the Carter administration for coming after religious schools, saying “it was complete self-defense” (p.53). Richard Viguerie said that the IRS rulings under Carter “kicked a sleeping dog” and pushed the Religious Right into political activism.
Importantly, Ballmer concludes that “evangelicals portrayed themselves as defending what they considered the sanctity of the evangelical subculture from outside interference (p. 54).” I’ve highlighted this last phrase because it aligns perfectly with sociologist Christian Smith’s theory of evangelical subcultural identity. His book on American Evangelicalism has the subtitle: Embattled and Thriving.
The next part of the chapter will unpack Smith’s theory and apply it to the Bob Jones history. I’ll try to examine the symbolic levers that allow evangelical institutions to see themselves under continual threat that must be resisted at all costs. Any movement is a potential break in the defensive schema that is necessary to maintain identity.
As a result Culture Wars are useful — not because they will be won but because they perpetuate the belief in threat. Which in turn solidifies boundaries that one can maintain to protect identity.
Using Bob Jones as a template and Smith as a theoretical perspective, the bulk of the chapter will do a deep dive on the question of LGBTQIA+ affirmation at Christian Universities over the course of the last decade. I don’t necessarily want that to be my only Culture War example in the chapter, so if you have suggestions for similar fronts6 in the Culture War in Christian Universities, please give me your thoughts in the comments.
Similar to the Bob Jones story, I’ll be paying particular attention to the third party activists (like Weyrich, Norquist, and Viguerie were for BJU). Throughout my analysis, I’ll pay particular attention to what Dan Bennett calls Christian Legal Organizations (who are changing the Supreme Court’s interpretations of religious freedom and culture wars).
I’ll end the chapter exploring ways in which Christian Universities can avoid getting sucked into Culture Wars that make it so hard for them to relate to the broader society and the current generation of potential students. Theoretically, doing so could even strengthen enrollment in this pluralistic age.
So that’s chapter four of the book. Based on my past pace, look for more details on here between now and summertime.
For context, Loving v. Virginia allowed interracial marriage in 1967.
Technically, the Supreme Court in Bob Jones v. Simon ruled that since BJU hadn’t paid taxes and had them withheld, they weren’t entitled to injunctive relief.
This time Bob Jones had paid $21 in employee taxes and then asked for them to be returned.
Another interesting historic note: arch conservative Robert Bork helped argue for the government in Bob Jones v Simon.
Of “drown the government in the bathtub” fame
If I was writing this ten years ago, I’d be focused on science wars but I’m not sure if those are still active.